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museum opens nubian exhibition

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    Posted: 12-Mar-2006 at 20:30

New Gallery Devoted to Ancient Nubia

By F.N. D'ALESSIO, Associated Press Writer Fri Mar 10, 10:34 AM ET

CHICAGO - As the Field Museum in downtown Chicago geared up for another blockbuster visit this spring by the golden treasures of King Tutankhamun, the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago quietly opened a new gallery devoted to ancient Nubia, the mysterious land from where all that gold came.


"Egypt didn't have any gold," explained Oriental Institute researcher Emily Teeter. "So when you look at the Tutankhamun art, you're seeing gold from Nubia, obtained either through trade or by conquest."

There's not much gold in the 600 artifacts on display in the new permanent gallery, but the collection contains treasure of a rarer kind: the fruits of 100 years of exploration and research into the poorly understood region that straddles the southern third of modern Egypt and the northern third of present-day Sudan.

Some of the works on display, culled from the museum's 15,000-piece Nubian collection, are solemn and ceremonial. Others are utilitarian, such as a leather quiver, still glossy and supple-looking, that dates from the time of Christ.

But a surprising number, particularly among the ceramic pieces, use animal images in a surprisingly whimsical way. A smiling frog ("a symbol of rebirth," Teeter said) gazes heavenward. Cartoonish crocodiles march around one pot, and friendly looking cobras dance around another.

What at first seem to be limp flowers in the snakes' mouths prove on a second look to be Egyptian religious symbols.

The liveliness of the Nubian pots couldn't be further from the stiff religious art of Egypt. They hint at the strange relationship between the two civilizations.

For several millennia, Nubia served as the conduit through which the riches of sub-Saharan Africa precious metals, animal hides, spices and incense reached Egypt and the Mediterranean world.

Nubia produced the earliest great civilization of black Africa and maintained its own distinct culture from about 5000 B.C. until its conquest by Muslims, about A.D. 1500. But through most of that long history it was eclipsed by nearby Egypt. And because the Nubian language was an unwritten one for most of that time, its civilization is often seen through an Egyptian filter.

An additional problem stems from the constant give-and-take between Egypt and Nubia, which makes it difficult to determine which nation originated specific technologies and cultural styles. The Nubians are known to have adopted some Egyptian gods and funerary practices, including pyramids, but modern archaeologists suspect some motifs long thought to have been Egyptian might have been Nubian.

"The relations between Egypt and Nubia were incredibly complex," said Oriental Institute director Gil Stein in ceremonies opening the new gallery. "To the Egyptians, at various times, Nubia represented a trading partner, an enemy in war, a supplier of troops, a conquered colony and even a conqueror."

Museum director Geoff Emberling, who oversaw installation of the new gallery, said that in 747 B.C., Egypt's central government had collapsed and the important city of Thebes came under attack by warlords from the north. Because of the fame of Nubian archers, the Thebans called on Nubia's King Piankhy for aid. Piankhy, who worshipped the Egyptian god Amun, saved Thebes and then conquered and reunified the rest of Egypt.

"He established the largest empire ever seen on the continent of Africa," Emberling said. "Egypt's 25th Dynasty, which he founded, was actually Nubian, and ruled for nearly a century."

Emberling said that most of the Nubian pharaohs preferred to remain in their homeland, so they sent their daughters north into Egypt, where they became "Wives of Amun" and ruled as vice regents for their fathers.

Figurines of one of the Nubian pharaohs and one of the "Wives of Amun" are part of the current exhibition.

The Nubian kings abandoned Egypt after a defeat by the invading Assyrians in 656 B.C. but still ruled in Nubia, which continued to flourish long after Egypt fell under the sway of the Greeks and Romans. Most Nubians became Christian by the sixth century A.D. and held off conquest by Muslim Arabs for a number of centuries, largely through their skill at archery.

"The Arabs called them the 'eye-smiters,'" Emberling said, and a glance into a display case filled with tiny but wicked-looking barbed steel arrowheads makes that term almost painfully believable.

The Oriental Institute has been involved in Nubian studies since 1905, when its founder, University of Chicago archaeologist James Henry Breasted, led the first of his two expeditions into the area and began the scientific study of Nubia. Previous visits by Europeans and Americans had focused on looting pyramids for gold.

The permanent exhibition is accompanied by a temporary exhibit of photographs from Breasted's expeditions, titled "Lost Nubia: Photos of Egypt and the Sudan 1905-1907." That display will run until May 7 and then travel to Egypt's Nubia Museum of Aswan.



Edited by vulkan02
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